Last Epiphany, Year A, 2017–Final Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ivy

“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”

Jesus has started getting real with his disciples. In Chapter 16, Matthew tells us that Jesus has started warning them that he will undergo great suffering. This has the disciples on edge. Ministry has been exciting so far—following Jesus around, watching miracles, learning from a great teacher. They have become comfortable in their new routine of moving from place to place following their teacher and friend. But now, Jesus is kind of ruining it with his dark talk.

Peter even confronts Jesus about this. You can just imagine him pulling Jesus aside, “Come on man, you’re being a real downer. Let’s just go make some blind people see, okay?” Jesus looks right at him and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

So, things have been a little tense. Maybe the disciples are second guessing their choices to drop everything in their lives to follow Jesus. Maybe things are getting a little too real for them.

Whatever the reason, God arranges a huge gift for Jesus, Peter, James and John. They hike up a mountain and suddenly Jesus becomes transformed. The disciples see the divinity with him and suddenly they also see Moses and Elijah flanking him. To gild the lily, God’s voice breaks through and says, “This is my son, The Beloved” Whatever doubts they have had are suddenly washed away. THIS is the transcendent experience they hoped for when they began following Jesus.

And when we have a transcendent experience, we want to bottle it, right? We want to stay in that moment of connection with God. We want to make it our every day. Peter does, too. He makes the generous offer to set up three tents so Jesus, Elijah and Moses can hang out indefinitely. It’ll be great! They can invite the other disciples up the mountain and then they can just party there for the next fifty years or so.

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

But if Jesus and the disciples stayed on the mountain, God’s good news for people would never have spread. We wouldn’t know how much God loves us or how we all belong to each other.

Jesus is going to suffer. The disciples’ lives are going to get dangerous. They cannot avoid the hard part of their ministry. But the experience of the transfiguration also transforms the disciples so that they will have the strength to carry on even through difficult times.

The trip up the mountain was important. The trip up the mountain was renewing. But the trip up the mountain was never meant to be permanent.

Jesus is not a top of the mountain kind of guy. Sure, he goes up periodically to get renewed, but he always comes back down again. He spends his time in the midst of human beings experiencing all the pain that comes with being human. He is Emmanuel—God with us.

This is the God who chose to be incarnate. He is 100% divine and 100% human. He can experience the glory of being in the presence of Moses, Elijah and God the father. But he doesn’t choose to stay there. He chooses to be with us.

If I leave you with anything from our four years together, this is what I want you to know: Jesus is with you. Jesus is not up in the clouds looking down on you in judgment. Jesus isn’t off on a mountain somewhere communing with the Saints. Jesus is here with you in this sacred space.

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

And Jesus is not just here with you. Jesus is out there with you. Jesus is with you when you brush your teeth, when you wrangle yourself and your family out the door, when you walk into your office, when you are in the grocery store, while you’re driving, when you greet a stranger, when you’re doing every ordinary and extraordinary thing you do in your life.

Jesus does not run away when things get hard, either. Whenever you or someone you love is suffering, Jesus is right alongside of you. He is not afraid of your pain. He is not turned off by your mistakes. He is with you to remind you that you are deeply loved, just as you are.

Jesus isn’t with you just to make you feel good. Jesus wants more than your affection. Jesus wants you to be his disciple. Jesus wants you to change your world by following him in all those ordinary and extraordinary moments of your life.

[At the 10:30 service] today we will our baptismal vows—those promises we make when we decide to follow Jesus. We promise to renounce the demonic, evil and sin. We promise to trust that Jesus loves us and to follow him. When we walk this path, God transforms us. As we get closer to Jesus, we don’t sin less, necessarily, but we realize it sooner. And we have more courage to ask for forgiveness and to work for reconciliation. We have more energy to reach out to those who are in need and to fight for justice. But it all starts with that knowledge that Jesus is already with you.

When we realize that Jesus is with us always, suddenly it is good to be everywhere! We don’t need to stay in our transcendent spaces if the transcendent goes with us. The beauty of the incarnation is that every place in our life is holy, no matter how mundane it may feel. A cubicle becomes holy when Jesus is there. A hospital bed becomes holy when Jesus is there. A grocery cart becomes holy when Jesus is there. You bring the transcendent with you and you can offer it to the world as a gift.

One of the gifts of being your priest has been these little glimpses of how you bring Jesus into the world. I have seen patients who offer kindness to their nurses, even though they are in pain. I have heard many stories of ministry happening at the Harris Teeter. I have seen a chef collecting unused produce from his colleagues for our food pantry. I have seen doctors taking extra steps to care for their patients. I have seen those who have walked through the experience of loving someone with Alzheimers mentor others going through the same thing. I have seen parents doing their best to raise children who contribute to the world. I have seen teachers create a safe and loving space for their students. I have seen you loving people who are difficult to love.

You, cooperating with Jesus, make it good for people to be where you are.

Lord, it has been good to be here. It has been good to be here with Eric and the rest of your church staff who work so hard every day. It has been good to be reunited with Allison and with those of you who had been at Emmanuel. It has been good to meet some of you for the first time, and have the privilege of walking along side life with you. It has been good to be with you at bedsides and weddings, in yoga and Sunday School classes, around lunch tables and over coffee.

Thank you, Eric, for inviting me to serve here. And thank all of you for your many kindnesses to Charlie and to me. It is always a challenge when a priest moves on from a congregation. This has been a stressful year in the world and it is hard not to carry that stress with us wherever we go. We will miss each other and saying goodbye brings anxiety. One way you can honor the relationship we have had in this transition is to take the words Ra often says at the end of our church yoga class to heart:

“Offer compassion to yourself and others. Every one is doing the best they can with what they think they know with where they are from.”

Jesus is with you. Jesus is with you in staff meetings, and vestry meetings, and in every conversation you have here at church. He will show up for you. It is good for you to be here.

May God bless you, your ministry in this place, and your ministry in the world.

Amen.

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Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

This is Moses’ final message to the Israelites. Moses has been called by God, led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandered around with them in the desert for forty years and now, now finally, they are about to cross into the promised land.

But what Moses knows, and what the Israelites don’t know yet, is that Moses won’t be joining them. He is 120 years old and is dying. He has been with these people for so long and put up with so much from them. He has put up with their whining for better food, for their worshiping of a Golden Calf, for their longing for a past in which they had been enslaved. And yet, Moses still loves them. Moses wants what is good for them.

So Moses asks them to choose life.

He sets before the Israelites a choice: choose life and prosperity or death or adversity. Easy choice, right?

But choosing life hasn’t been an easy choice for the Israelites, because in this context choosing life means choosing God’s law. And choosing God’s law means worshiping God above everything else. Worshiping God means no longer creating idols—either literal ones like the Golden Calf or metaphorical ones like money, or how we look, or our families.

But Moses has seen what has happened to Israel when they have chosen other idols. He has seen them struggle, seen them wander in the desert and he wants more for them. He wants them to be able to settle down in the land of milk and honey. He wants for them to live at peace with God and with one another. He wants them to prosper.

God’s laws—from the Ten Commandments on—were always meant to be good for people. They were meant to give us boundaries on our life to help us live in peaceful community. Worship God. Do not murder. Do not take what does not belong to you. Honor your family. Don’t lie. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t even have lustful thoughts towards another person’s spouse. All these boundaries are good for us. And Jewish law has always been situational. The Israelites renegotiate the Covenant with God twice once they reach Canaan and rabbis were famous for deeply examining and arguing and working with Jewish law to apply it to new situations as they arose. God’s law is ancient, but it is flexible and it is meant for our good.

The law helps us make good decisions when our instincts are telling us otherwise. I ordered a new duvet and set of shams from West Elm a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised when I received two boxes. When I opened them, I realized they had accidentally sent me a double order: two duvets and four shams. My first reaction was joy! It was a bedding jackpot! I was mentally storing up the extras so I would have a bonus set. But then, sadly, the law kicked in. I reluctantly looked at the return slip and sure enough there was an option to return things because the store accidentally sent you extras. Keeping the bedding would have been stealing. (Even though, to be clear, it was totally the company’s fault.)

Now I don’t think death would have come upon me had I kept that bedding. But, if we live inside the boundaries of these laws, we are less likely to harm others and ourselves.

When God’s laws are broken, the pain from that break spirals out affecting not only the person who broke the law, but their families and friends, too. While breaking God’s law may not kill us, it can mortally wound our relationships.

If we are able to be clear about what God desires for us, it can help us resist those moment’s of temptation. What do I really want when I click on that old girlfriend’s FaceBook page? Connection? How can I get human connection in a more appropriate way? What hole am I feeling when I covet my neighbor’s new chandelier? How can I feel content in my own life?

But of course, we don’t always choose to stay within the law. When I’m talking to little kids about this, I describe our sins as building blocks that we put up between ourselves and other people or God. When we covet, when we cheat, when we steal, we lay block after block and eventually, we stop being able to relate to the person we are harming at all. We depersonalize them in order to justify our behavior.

The good news is, there is a way to knock down those blocks and start to build the trust that leads to life.

When we take responsibility for our actions and understand how we have harmed others, and sincerely ask for forgiveness, we put the people we have harmed in the position where they can forgive us, and begin to tear those blocks down. Now, it is a risk, because you will not always be forgiven. Sometimes you have broken the law so badly that the relationship cannot be repaired. Or sometimes, the person you have harmed may be putting up blocks of their own out of pain and anger.

Because God decided to take pity on us, and send us Jesus, it is now so much easier to ask forgiveness of God. We don’t save up money for any sacrificial animals. We don’t have to travel to the city to find a Temple and a priest to absolve us. All we need to do is turn to God and ask his forgiveness, and because of Jesus’ defeat of human sin, God will forgive us. Every time.

No matter how far down a path of death we have traveled, God always offers us life in exchange. And I say this at least once a year, but I think Alcoholics Anonymous gives us just a perfect example of what this transformation can look like. You acknowledge your weakness, acknowledge you need God, ask forgiveness to those you have wounded and in step eleven: “[Seek] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If we stay connected to God through prayer, we are more likely to stay in the behavioral boundaries that God desires for us and that lead to healthy and happy relationships.

And those in AA don’t go it alone. AA only works because its members work the steps in community. They have accountability through sponsors. The closest we have to sponsors in the Episcopal tradition is godparents, and I think we would do well to really claim that tradition. I don’t have an actual godparent, but Beth Wharton has acted as my god parent on more than one occasion! And Charlie doesn’t have godparents, because he was baptized in the Presbyterian church, but he’s had at least a dozen of you function that way for him. It is good for us to have church people we know so well that they can help us check in with ourselves to make sure we are on track. But that means we have to be honest with each other about what is going on in our lives!

I promise you, no one in this room has a perfect life. No matter how attractive they are. No matter what kind of car they drive. No matter how happy they seem. Everyone here struggles with something. Because it is hard to be a person! It is especially hard to be a decent person trying their best to follow God.

Just like Moses stuck by the Israelites, Jesus sticks by us. He is on our side, ready to invite us into life. He’s ready to guide us into a way of life that gives life to us and to those around us.

May we accept his invitation.

Amen.

 

 

 

Epiphany 4, Year A, 2017

You know how when you’re waiting to board the plane, you start to hear, “Platinum Diamond passengers are welcome to board. Gold Passengers are welcome to board. Frequent fliers are welcome to board. First class passengers are welcome to board.” By the time they get to you, in section five, with your seat right next to the rest room, you have a pretty clear understanding of what your status is. Low.

Whether we like it or not, our status in life is incredibly determinative of our life experiences. Some of us have great status. We are born to parents who have a house and some money and live near good schools. Some of us have worse status. We are born in poverty and violence and go to poorly funded schools. And status affects us whether we even realize it or not. Our status can determine what kind of higher education we get, where we get our first internship, whom we marry. Even our church denominations have status attached to them. Of the 45 Presidents our nation has had, a quarter of them were Episcopalians! Another eight were Presbyterian. There’s a lone Roman Catholic on the list, and no Pentecostals. You didn’t know you were grooming future Presidents by bringing your kids here, did you? Even within an individual congregation, social status can sometimes creep in and affect who has positions of power and who is taken seriously.

The Corinthians really struggled with status. We heard last week about how they were fighting about being followers of Paul or Apollos or Peter. This was just part of their struggle. Corinth was a new money town, full of people striving to climb the social ladder. And the church at Corinth was filled with a real mix of people of different statuses. The power structures of the world were getting played out in the local congregation. Rich people would gather for communion first and eat up all the good food before the poor people could get there. The church was also a mix of Jewish and Greek people, so their religious status was also an issue. The different groups were not united, not treating each other with kindness. People of higher statuses were acting like they were more special than people of lower statuses.

You might expect to Paul to wade in and sort out these arguments for the Corinthians—give them some direction about who was right and who was wrong. But Paul wants to make a larger point.

He says, “for the logos of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

New Testament scholar Alex Brown points out that

For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”2 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.[1]

Paul is saying much more than that the cross is a message. He is saying that the cross is part of the cosmic order. And in this cosmic order, statuses are upended, if not discarded altogether.

One would think that God would have the ultimate status. He rules over all of creation and everything within it. He could come to earth and lord over us all. Instead, when God does come to earth, he chooses not to exercise his status. Instead he is humiliated, put to death on the cross as a common criminal. If Epiphany is a series of revelations, this is a huge one: that God did not come here to lord over us, but to come alongside us and face even our worst humiliations.

Whatever our status, whomever we follow, any airs we might put on look ridiculous when compared to God’s sacrifice and humility. Paul writes,

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Our world feels a lot like Corinth these days! Instead of people following Appollos and Paul, we have followers of Jerry Falwell or Jack Spong; Tim Keller or Nadia Bolz Weber. Conservative and liberal Christians have been at each others’ throats, convinced the other side fundamentally misunderstands who God is and what God wills for our country.

Is God primarily interested in us being faithful to the law and living pure lives? Or is God primarily interested in us being compassionate and welcoming to as diverse a group of people as possible? Whatever our position, we have certainly been getting on our high horses as we align ourselves with religious leaders, teachers, and politicians that reflect our beliefs. Whatever you believe, there is a Christian somewhere ready to yell at you about how your status as a Christian is questionable.

And it is humbling to remember that Jesus died for this. He knows this about us. He knows we can’t even talk about God without becoming defensive and hurtful. And instead of whipping us into shape and telling us what to do, he comes alongside us, loves us, and sacrifices himself for us.

That is foolishness! That makes no sense! It’s almost embarrassing to think about how the God of the Universe came to love us despite how incredibly petty we can be, how willing we are to demonize people, how sure we are that we are right about everything.

Whenever we are in conflict with another person, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, it is helpful for us to spend some time at the foot of the cross. Spending time with Jesus, who offers everything to us with utter vulnerability and without any regard to status, reorients us. And it helps us to give up our status—which is just an illusion anyway. And if we are willing to give up our status maybe we’ll be willing to encounter Christ in the other.

When anyone around us got too self-righteous, my mother would mutter, “He’s going to be really surprised at who is with him in heaven.” She was not a theologian, but I think she was on to something. We’ll all be there together—liberal do-gooders and conservative rule followers—because our salvation is not based on us believing the right doctrine, but on a series of historical acts—Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. And if we each focus on following Christ, rather than tearing into each other maybe we can get somewhere constructive. I have conservative and liberal Christian relatives. The conservatives help pack meals for the hungry and volunteer in schools. The liberals volunteer in soup kitchens and teach Sunday School. While their ideas about policy are completely opposite from each other, the way they live out their faith is very similar.

And I think we could yell at each other for days without anyone changing their minds about a single thing! There is a path forward, I think, in which we boldly express our opinions and frustrations to our elected leaders, and find a way of talking to those close to us that is rooted in the humility of being people who are free of status, standing together at the foot of the cross.

And Christians need to get our act together because the world needs Jesus and Christians are Jesus’ current delivery system. Jesus did not die for us so that we could be right. Jesus died for us so God’s kingdom could spread throughout the world. A world of peace and justice. The world needs us. Refugees need us. Kids being trafficked need us. Hopeless people who have turned to heroin as a way out need us. Kids who can’t count on a meal at the end of the day need us.

At Diocesan Convention this weekend, Bishop Gulick reminded us that we are each crucial. The word crucial means cross shaped. We are crucial, because we stand at the foot of the cross–able to see ourselves and others clearly. There is no us and them, there is just us, forgiven and loved by God.

Let’s get to work.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3140

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2017

We know Jesus’ debut really well right?

We definitely have his birth story down. We read it every year. If our kids are of a certain age, we may even have the pageant script memorized! We know how Jesus came on the scene.

But what about his adult debut? We know he gets baptized, of course. We could probably give a pretty clear description of how he comes across John the Baptist in the wilderness and asks to be baptized. We might even remember that the heavens open for a moment and God’s voice booms down, “This my son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

But what about Jesus’ first public words in each Gospel? How does he present himself?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes out of his experience of temptation in the desert, goes right to the temple, unrolls a scroll and begins to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes out of the desert and proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These are all dramatic proclamations of Jesus’ identity. He is telling the world who he is, and what he stands for. Today though, we aren’t reading from those Gospels. Today, we are reading from the Gospel of John.

In the Gospel of John, we get a slightly different story. Jesus’ baptism happens off-stage. We just get John’s word for it that God spoke and called Jesus his beloved. Two of John’s followers overhear John saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This makes them curious, so they start to secretly follow Jesus. Can you picture them staying a few paces back, occasionally slipping behind a tree when he looks around? Eventually Jesus stops, turns around, and speaks his first public words. But these words aren’t a profound declaration about who he is. He asks a question, “What are you looking for?” Another translation might be, “What are you seeking?”

These are Jesus’ very first followers. Can you imagine? He now has literally a billion followers, but once there were just two. Two curious men willing to sneak around to follow someone they knew to be of God. Two men willing to be impolite, willing to drop whatever their plans were for the day. Two men willing to be out in the wilderness listening to John the Baptist talk about God. We laugh at their bumbling attempts to tail Jesus, but they are the genesis of a movement that would change the world.

What were they seeking? What are we seeking? Why do we come here week after week to sing old songs and pray old prayers and eat the same meal we eat every single week? Do we come to be soothed by traditions that are familiar to us? Do we come to see people we love? Do we come to encounter the Divine? What are we seeking?

Andrew and his friend don’t have an answer to Jesus’ question. They ask a question in return, “Where are you staying?” Where does the Lamb of God stay? Does he rent a motel room? Stay with a friend? Does he carry a tent with him? Maybe they are really wondering how on earth the Lamb of God dwells with us. How is the presence of God able to stay here, with us? How does that even work?

Jesus invites them to “come and see”. It is his first invitation. In the other Gospels he tells his disciples to “follow me,” but here the invitation has a lower level of commitment. He responds to their immediate question. He doesn’t force them into anything. He simply invites them to see where he is staying. That initial invitation is the beginning of a huge change in the world. Andrew runs off to grab his brother, Simon. Simon, who becomes Peter, who becomes the rock of the church after Jesus’ death. In these very initial moments of Jesus’ ministry, the church is being born. By following Jesus, these disciples get to be part of history.

Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and the other disciple, still stands. “Come and see.” Whatever you are seeking: comfort, forgiveness, joy, meaning; Jesus invites you to come and see what following him will do to your life. Now, be warned, you may not get what you intend. The disciples end up being so devoted to Jesus they each ultimately died in his name.

We may not literally die from following Jesus, but we will be called to die to ourselves. For when we come and see what Jesus is up to, we see that following him isn’t that easy. When we follow Jesus we have to look at ourselves honestly. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we have to love other people. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we are supposed to put God’s priorities over our own. That’s definitely not easy.

But Jesus knows following him won’t be easy. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes,

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

“Come and see.” It is a simple, life changing invitation.

We all have different levels and interests in faith, but this Epiphany we invite you to “Come and see”. Wondered about contemplative prayer? You don’t have to be an expert to come. You don’t have to have prayed a minute in your life! Just come on Mondays at noon and join our prayer team. They’ll teach you what you need to know.

Curious about how it feels to worship God in a different kind of service? Come and see our Celtic service. You may encounter a part of God you’ve not experienced before.

Want to get to know God better? Come and see the bible study for Education for Ministry group? Both work to equip you for a deeper faith by educating you about what we believe about God.

There are many ways to encounter Jesus in this place. Wherever you are, he extends an invitation to you. Come and see.

It will change your life.

Amen.

Christmas Eve, Year A, 2016

Sometimes, when I am feeling overwhelmed and trying to get some perspective, I just imagine where I stand in the universe. I stand on a patch of ground maybe a square foot large. I am one of seven billion people working and loving and playing on our planet. Our planet is this tiny speck in our galaxy, which is just a speck of a galaxy among billions of other galaxies. Human beings are very, very small if you stack us up next to all of the rest of creation. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, a universe filled with wonder and beauty and a wild order.

You would think the God of the universe wouldn’t give us much of a second thought, since creation is so vast. There are literally infinite numbers of places in space God could spend his time and attention.   And when you do zoom into Earth, and see the rubble and despair in Aleppo, the corruption in governments, and all the ways we hurt each other, you might think God would rather birth a new star or throw rocks into black holes rather than spend time with us.

And yet, knowing full well who we are, God decided to join us. God saw our brokenness and was not repelled, but was drawn toward us. He saw our pain and suffering, he saw our beauty and love and decided to break the barriers he had established between creation and heaven. Centuries of war and slavery did not keep him from us. Even first century sin did not change his mind. Corruption in the Temple could not keep him away. Herod, who wanted to kill him immediately, could not keep him from us. He chose to enter our world, as it is, as it continues to be, beautiful and broken.

In Luke’s Gospel, heaven first crashed through our atmosphere in the form of angels. Gabriel appeared to Mary. The Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. God used his messengers to wake up his people, to prepare us for what was to come. These angels appeared to ordinary people, a young girl, a group of shepherds. These were not the elite, just ordinary people going about their business.

But angels are just messengers. They come and go. And God wanted to stay with us. So, with Mary’s cooperation, the God of the Universe became a tiny, vulnerable infant. The Divine took human form and stayed.

In the incarnation, God inhabited our lives. He learned what it meant to not be able to move without another human carrying you around. He learned what it meant to have bodies that hurt. He learned what it meant to be dependent. He learned what it meant to be poor. He learned what it meant to see the world through a limited perspective. He gave our ordinary lives dignity, even holiness by living them alongside of us.

And he gave us an image for this abstract God we had been worshiping. Jesus continued to reach out to real, complicated human beings. He pursued ordinary workers, the oppressed and the oppressors, the grieving, the sick, the mentally ill, women with bad reputations, women with great reputations, children. No one was too insignificant for Jesus to bless with his attention. And no one was so powerful they could intimidate Jesus. He was completely sure of himself, but only because he was so connected to his Father. His strength came from a deep knowledge of his Father’s love for him, and that love poured out of him affecting everyone around him.

The same God who is so infinite that he exists outside of time, chose to make himself specific. And when we follow him, we worship him in all his infinite wonder, but we care about the specific. We contemplate his majesty while we help the poor. We contemplate his divinity, when we see the divine in each person we meet. We contemplate his power as we seek to heal the ill. God’s experience as Jesus changes us and shapes how we understand what it means to be a human being.

We understand now that being human means staying connected to the God that created and loves us. It truly does not matter how much money we make or whether we are respected or successful. If we are connected to God, and learning how much God loves us and how much God loves those around us, then we are pleasing to God.

There is enormous suffering in our world, even 2000 years after Jesus’ birth. We can find ourselves overwhelmed, eager to turn away from the pain of others. Jesus was often surrounded by others’ pain—crowds of needy people followed him wherever he went. He healed whom he could, but he also took breaks. He retreated not to watch TV and numb the pain, but to pray and draw strength from his Father.

We too, are called to care for those who suffer, whether in Aleppo or in our neighborhoods. But we cannot care for them alone. We need the strength of our God, and we need each other. Knowing that each human being is made in God’s image is a huge responsibility. But it is not “us” who are privileged and “they” who suffer. Christians are all around. The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo this week released a statement that read in part,

In this Christmas season, we promise to continue our ministry as a Synod and as a church to be a sign of hope in this despairing time. We will try to plant joy into the life of the society. We will never cease to dedicate our effort to bring love and peace into the city of Aleppo. We will continue our worship services (200 people), ladies meeting (60 ladies), Sunday school (125 children with 18 leaders). Greeting to all of our partners hoping that they will pray for us this Christmas in Aleppo in order that we will meet the needs of marginalized people.

These brothers and sisters remind us that this incredible gift of Jesus’ birth is life changing whether you are surrounded by a beautiful home and lavish presents or whether you are desperately worried as bombs fall on your community. Jesus’ birth to a young woman is not just a sweet story we tell once a year, it the foundation of what makes our lives meaningful. It is the strength to get us through impossibly difficult situations. It is the courage to stand up for what is right and good.  It is the compassion that helps us look up and out and care for those around us.

Jesus may have ascended after his resurrection, but he sent his Holy Spirit so that we would never again be parted from God. At the moment of our baptism that presence of Christ takes up root in our heart and will never leave us. Jesus came to live among us and he still does. You may think you are far from God or don’t know God, but he is closer to you than your own breath. He is with you now, in this moment, ready to give your life meaning, ready to give you courage, ready to give you compassion. You are loved as much as the most complex galaxy in the universe. Jesus has crashed through our atmosphere. And he’s not going back.

Amen.

Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.

Amen.

Advent 1, Year A, 2016

This week while visiting my in-laws in Texas, I received a text from my landlady. “Do you guys have an evacuation plan?”

This is not a text I expected to get. I found my heart pounding and my brain racing. I wrote something articulate, like, “Um, what?”

She explained that Peebles Hill, the mountain on which our houses are built, was on fire. The forestry department had come through and warned everyone to make an evacuation plan.

That woke me up. In fact, it took me about three days to come down from that text, even after I read the reports of how the forest service bulldozed a barrier so the fire would not come down the mountain and burn Lovingston.

Do we have an evacuation plan? We do now. We quickly got a list together of paintings and jewelry and important documents and texted it to our dog sitter and a friend. We know now what we consider essential.

This Advent I ask you: Do you have an evacuation plan?

And I don’t mean the kind where you gather up your grandmother’s jewelry and your passports. I mean the kind you would need for the situation Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew:

so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Now, if Jesus sent you that text, it would make your heart race a little, right? Matthew describes a terrifying and disorienting scenario in which Jesus’ return means people start disappearing left and right! In this kind of evacuation scenario, I’d be tempted to gather up all my good works in a bag to show Jesus. “See Jesus, I gave to my church, I was basically nice, I bought an Angel Tree gift every year!”

Do you have an evacuation plan? Do you have a plan for what you will do or say if Jesus was to suddenly appear in a cloud before you? It’s a terrifying prospect, all these images of people disappearing, imminent destruction. Advent, the season in which we anticipate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, is the season when we also anticipate the second coming.

Jesus’ work of salvation began during his birth, but is not yet fully complete. He promises us a Kingdom where everything is perfectly in line with God’s vision—no more grief, no more sickness, no more broken relationships. But we all know that world has not arrived yet.

Some people believe that this perfect world won’t be ushered in until Jesus returns to earth in one cataclysmic event as described in the Gospel of Matthew.

Other folks believe that this perfect world will start to unfold gradually. In fact, that God’s Kingdom is right here, right now and we get to participate in building it with God. We carry the presence of Jesus in us, through our baptism, and renew it through our weekly communion. The Holy Spirit helps us to share that presence of Jesus with the world and grow God’s kingdom.

If that’s the case, maybe we don’t need an evacuation plan. An evacuation plan is the easy way out, right? You pack your suitcase of self righteousness and say beam me up, Jesus! I’m ready for my time share in heaven!

If God’s Kingdom is here now, always unfolding, right before our eyes, then Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes a lot of sense: Wake from sleep! Wake up! Look around you! Paul describes salvation as being a little closer than it used to be because Paul understands salvation as an event in history, not someone’s personal moral and ethical condition. For Paul, salvation started at Jesus’ birth and continues through this mysterious second event. Paul doesn’t care about our bags of good deeds. For Paul our salvation is not about our behavior, but about Jesus’ acts in history and the future.

And Paul doesn’t say anything about an evacuation plan. Paul wants his readers to put on the armor of light, not as a moral response to salvation, but because the armor of light is just what people who have been saved by God wear. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the armor of light in our closet. It comes free with our baptism. I often tell kids who are being baptized that after they are baptized they will be a little bit like superheroes. If we are superheroes, this armor of light is our costume.

What if we thought about Jesus’ second coming not as an evacuation route, but as a chance to be strap on our Armor of Light and participate in the new world he wants to create? Whether Jesus is actually going to come in a historical event or whether Jesus is already here, at work through the Holy Spirit, through each of us, our role doesn’t really change.

Paul describes the Armor of Light as giving us the power to live honorably and with self control.

The world really hungers for honor and self control these days. Whether you’re a Real Housewife or an Internet troll, it seems our society rewards those who can make the biggest splash or be the most hurtful. But the fabric of the Kingdom of God is and will be made up of the quiet, the faithful, and the kind.

The town of Lovingston was saved this weekend because of faithful employees of the Forest Service and faithful volunteer firefighters. Now, I don’t know if I have ever heard of a splashy story about a member of the Forest Service. I can’t even tell you what they do, exactly. But I know this week they spent about three days in bulldozers, creating a fire line between the fire and our homes. They sacrificed holiday time with family in order to serve us. And dozens of the residents of Nelson County brought by granola bars, fruit, sandwiches and water as a thank you.

None of this is headline news if you don’t get the Nelson County Times. And I don’t know if any of these folks are Christians, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. Their faithful, sacrificial work is exactly the kind of work needed to knit together the Kingdom of God.

And they did not do the work in order to fill up their bags with their good deeds. They fought the fire, because that is who they are, what they have been trained to do.

How has God been preparing you to wear your Armor of Light? How are you part of the completely ordinary and completely supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God? How will you communicate God’s love to the world? How will you enact God’s justice?

Each of you has a vital role to play in the creation of God’s kingdom. And you don’t have to become someone else to do it. God created an Armor of Light that perfectly matches your temperament and interests. Only you can do the specific thing that God has designed for you.

My prayer for each of us this Advent is that we wouldn’t plan our evacuation, but that we would plan to stay, to put on our Armor of Light and to show up for God and the people who desperately need him. Amen.